23rd November 1937: Jagadish Chandra Bose, Indian physicist, passed away

A Bengali physicist who did pioneering research in wireless wave technology, Jagadish Chandra Bose was born on November 30, 1858. When he died on November 23, 1937, he left behind a rich and diverse legacy, not only as a founding father of experimental science in India, but also as a botanist, biologist and thinker. Add to this the fact that he was one of the earliest science fiction writers in Bengali!

Bose was born in Bikrampur, Bengal (now a part of Bangladesh’s Munshiganj district). His father, Bhagawan Chandra, a prominent member of the Hindu reformist organisation Brahmo Samaj, worked as a senior government official.

Bose studied early on in a vernacular school as his father was keen that he should be familiar with his mother tongue. Bose later remarked, “At that time, sending children to English schools was an aristocratic status symbol. In the vernacular school, to which I was sent, the son of the Muslim attendant of my father sat on my right side, and the son of a fisherman sat on my left…It was because of my childhood friendship with them that…I never realised that there existed a problem common to the two communities, Hindus and Muslims.”

Bhagawan Chandra was relatively well off but he invested his savings in several business ventures such as tea-growing in Assam, most of which failed and he went heavily into debt. Recalling his father’s entrepreneurial adventures, in a lecture in 1917, Bose said with remarkable eloquence: “[E]veryone had said that he [my father] wrecked his life, which was meant for far greater things. Few realise that out of the skeletons of myriad lives, vast continents have been built. It is on the wreck of a life like his and of many such lives that will be built the Greater India yet to be.”

After finishing his school education and securing a Bachelor’s degree, Bose went to Britain to study medicine, but had to leave it on account of ill health. He then studied Natural Science at Cambridge.

After returning to India, he got an appointment as officiating professor of physics in

Calcutta’s Presidency College, but he was discriminated against and initially offered a lower salary than his European counterparts. With the university lacking resources for conducting proper research, he had to work against great odds. This was noted by the British social worker and author Sister Nivedita who wrote that she was “horrified” at the “continuous annoyance and petty difficulties” the scientist faced.

Bose nevertheless carried out various experiments in the college, including ones in refraction, polarisation and diffraction. He would use several types of junctions connected to a very sensitive galvanometer in order to receive radiation. In 1895, he gave a public demonstration of electromagnetic waves, using them to remotely ring a bell remotely and explode gunpowder. “The inventor (J.C. Bose) has transmitted signals to a distance of nearly a mile and herein lies the first and obvious and exceedingly valuable application of this new theoretical marvel,” England’s Daily Chronicle reported in 1896.  

Bose’s astonishing public demonstration predated similar work that was being done at the time by Russia’s Popov and the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, who is often credited as being the inventor of the radio. However, unlike Marconi, who was keen on finding commercial and practical uses to his research, Bose rarely thought along those lines.

“When Marconi was fighting one law suit from another, trying to establish the claims of his companies, Bose was immersed in a different world of scientific discoveries. Besides, he never made any official claim to being the pioneer of radio telegraphy and his nephew Prof. D. M. Bose recalls that when he (J.C. Bose) was to be asked as to who was the inventor of the radio, his answer used to be, ‘The invention is more important than the inventor’,” writes D.P. Sen Gupta in the book Remembering Sir J C Bose. “He (Jagadish Chandra Bose) was so consistent about his faith of distributing the fruits of one’s labour without thinking of personal benefits that he made it one of the rules of the constitution of the Bose Institute that he set up, that ‘no invention from this Institution should be patented’.”

By the turn of the century, Bose became more interested in plant research including showing the electrical nature of the conduction of various stimuli, such as chemical agents, in plants. A very popular teacher, he retired from Presidency College in 1915, but was made Professor Emeritus. The Bose Institute was founded two years later.

Bose, who also wrote a science fiction story, Niruddesher Kahini, in 1896, had a wide range of interests that helped him push the boundaries of conventional scientific thinking. “In the West, the prevailing tendency at the moment is, after a period of synthesis, to return upon the excessive sub-division of learning…,” he told a conference in 1911. “Such a caste system in scholarship, undoubtedly helps at first, in the gathering and classification of new material. But if followed too exclusively, it ends by limiting the comprehensiveness of truth.”  

After Jagadish Chandra Bose’s death in 1937, one of India’s greatest poets, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, had this to say about his friend: “Years ago, when Jagadish Chandra, in his militant exuberance of youthfulness, was contemptuously defying all obstacles to the progress of his endeavour, I came into intimate contact with him, and became infected with his vigorous hopefulness. There was every chance of his frightening me away into a respectful distance, making me aware of the airy nothingness of my own imaginings. But to my relief, I found in him a dreamer, and it seemed to me, what surely was a half-truth, that it was more his magical instinct than the probing of his reason which startled out secrets of nature before sudden flashes of his imagination.”

Also on this day:

1926 — Sathya Sai Baba, Indian guru, was born 

1897 — Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Bengali−English writer and cultural commentator, was born 

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